QUAD-CITY TIMES, Davenport, Iowa, Friday, 18 July 2003.

Circumcision: What's a parent to do?

by Jason Hidalgo, Gannett News Service

Once a widely accepted procedure among American doctors, male circumcision has experienced a steady decline in the last few decades.

Circumcision of newborns peaked in the United States some 30 years ago at about 85 percent to 90 percent, says Dr. George Denniston, president of Doctors Opposing Circumcision, a Seattle-based anti-circumcision organization with members worldwide. These days, those numbers are around 55-60 percent, he says. The rates are even lower in the western states of California, Oregon and Washington, which have a combined rate of 35 percent, Denniston adds. Some states also have stopped covering circumcisions under Medicaid.

Denniston attributes the decline to increased awareness among parents of what he considers a dangerous, needless procedure.

"It doesn't take anybody with an IQ over 70 to realize that taking off half the skin of a normal penis causes problems," Denniston says. "There's not a single medical association in the entire world that approves routine infant circumcision."

Others, however, point to studies showing the benefits of circumcision. These include reduced risk for urinary tract infections in babies and penile cancer in older men, and potential benefits in preventing HIV.

Then there are the religious and cultural reasons behind the procedure.

"It's a ritual that celebrates the covenant into the Jewish (religion)," says Rabbi Myra Soifer of Temple Sinai in Reno, Nev. "It's central to the Jewish faith because that's how Abraham came into the covenant as the first Jew and agreed to the foundation and theological commitment that is now Judaism."

Medical matters

No one can quite peg the origins of circumcision, which dates back even further than Biblical accounts of Abraham, according to the online Circumcision Information and Resources Page.

"It's one of those things that have been done for a long time and nobody even knows why it started," Denniston says.

In the 1800s, circumcisions were encouraged by some doctors in the United States as a way to prevent boys from masturbating. These days, the touted benefits for circumcision are more grounded in science than the masturbation-induced madness and eternal damnation that old proponents used to warn people about.

A common advantage mentioned is easier hygiene, although this is more a convenience factor and not a pressing need, says Dr. Catherine Wagoner, a pediatrician. Proper hygiene, or the lack thereof, might be considered as an indication for circumcision in men who are either too old or unable to properly clean underneath the foreskin, since this can cause infections, Wagoner says.

Circumcision also is used to treat phimosis, a rare condition in which the foreskin is too tight to be pulled back. In some cases, this condition can restrict blood flow to the head of the penis.

Studies show that babies who are circumcised have a significantly lower risk for urinary tract infections during their first year - about a one in 1,000 chance as opposed to one in 100 for their uncircumcised counterparts. Some studies also show increased protection against genital warts and sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis, and a reduced risk of penile cancer in men and cervical cancer in female partners.

One of the strongest findings for circumcision's benefits appeared in the June 10, 2000 issue of the British Medical Journal. The study found that circumcised men are two to eight times less likely to contract HIV through sex. Researchers said the likely culprits were cells with HIV receptors found in the inner surface of the foreskin. Although stopping short of recommending routine male infant circumcision, the researchers went on to suggest circumcision as an additional means of preventing HIV in countries with a high prevalence of infection, especially those in central and southern Africa.

Anti-circumcision advocates, though, are quick to dismiss the mentioned benefits.

"If you look at the research, there's no reason to do it or not to do it," Wagoner says.

The American Academy of Pediatrics mirrors Wagoner's view. In its circumcision policy released in 1999, the AAP states that circumcision does have some potential health benefits, although those benefits aren't significant enough to recommend routine circumcision.

Cultural decisions

With the medical debate for circumcision raging to a standoff, the driving force behind circumcision now largely rests on two factors: culture and religion.

For anti-circumcision advocates, these could be the biggest roadblocks of all.

People like Denniston, for example, cite psychological damage to infants due to pain and to boys who realize they "aren't whole" when they first learn about their circumcision. In some cases, though, not being circumcised also opens a boy to the same psychological trauma due to ridicule from circumcised peers. This is especially worse for boys in cultures that traditionally circumcise their adolescents as a right of passage to manhood.

Copyright © 2002 The Quad-City Times

(File prepared 22 July 2003)